A Brief History Of Tao: Lao Tzu And Taoism

A Brief History Of Tao: Lao Tzu And Taoism

Lao Tzu (Lao Zi), The Father Of Taoism

It is said that Taoism is the only true homegrown Chinese religion—Buddhism was imported from India and Confucianism is mainly a philosophy. According to tradition, the founder of Taoism was a man known as Lao Tzu. He is said to have been born around the year 604 BC.

It’s widely believed that Lao Tzu was the keeper of the government archives
in the west of China, and that Confucius consulted with him.

At the end of his life, Lao Tzu is said to have climbed on a water buffalo and ridden west towards what is now Tibet, in search of solitude for his last few years. On the way, he was asked to leave behind a record of his beliefs. The product was a slim volume of only 5000 characters, the Tao Te Ching (Tao De Jing) or The Way and Its Power). He then rode off on his buffalo.

It’s doubtful that Lao Tzu ever intended his philosophy to become a religion. Zhuangzi, who lived between 399 and 295 BC, picked up where Lao Tzu left off. Zhuangzi is regarded as the greatest of all Taoist writers and The Book of Zhuangzi is still required reading for anyone trying to make sense of Taoism. However, like Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi was a philosopher and was not actually trying to establish a religion.

Credit for turning Taoism into a religion is generally given to Zhang Taoling, who formally established his Celestial Masters movement in 143 BC.

At the center of Taoism is the concept of Tao. Tao cannot be perceived because it exceeds the senses, thoughts and imagination; it can be known only through mystical insight, which cannot be expressed with words. Tao is the way of the universe, the driving power in nature, the order behind all life, and the spirit that cannot be exhausted. Tao is the way people should order their lives to keep in harmony with the natural order of the universe.

Just as there have been different interpretations of the ‘way’, there have also been different interpretations of De—the power of the universe.

This has led to the development of three distinct forms of Taoism in China.

Taoism later split into two divisions, the ‘Cult of the Immortals’ and ‘The Way of the Heavenly Teacher’. The Cult of the Immortals offered immortality through meditation, exercise, alchemy and various other techniques. The Way of the Heavenly Teacher had many gods, ceremonies, saints, and special diets to prolong life and offerings to the ghosts. As time passed, Taoism increasingly became wrapped up in the supernatural, self-mutilation, witchcraft, exorcism, fortune-telling, magic and ritualism.

A Brief History Of Taoism
Taoism, an indigenous traditional Chinese religion, dates back to some 1,800 year’s ago when Master Zhang Taoling of the Eastern Han Dynasty 7 (25-220AD) formerly organized a religious Taoist group. In the long years of its evolution, Taoism had profound influence politically, economically, culturally and ideologically in ancient Chinese society and it is still functioning today.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, Zhang Taoling went and settled on Singing Crane Mountain (Mount Heming). He claimed that he had been imparted the “Mighty Commonwealth of the Orthodox Oneness (Zhengyi Meng Wei) by Supreme Master Lao Tzu and he began producing and circulating books advocating Tao. His teachings centered on the summoning of deities, magic incantation and subduing of ghosts, as well as breathing exercises.

During the Wei Kingdom Period (220-265 DC), Celestial Master Taoism which was created by Zhang Taoling was suppressed and it declined. However, as Zhang Lu and his disciples moved north from Hanzhong, Celestial Master Taoism began to be revived in the regions where Supreme Peace Taoism had once been practiced. It then spread throughout of the country.

During the Western Jin period (265-316 AD) and the Eastern Jin (317-420 AD), some powerful families and scholars started to believe in Taoism. Taoism, which had started from the grass roots level, now penetrated the upper class and eventually became an integral part of the spiritual life of the ruling class.

As more and more scholars turned to Taoism, the Taoist educational level was thus enhanced. As a result, a vast body of Taoist scriptures was created to challenge Buddhism from India. As the Taoist scriptures spread, three new Taoist sects came into being—–namely, the High Purity (Shangqing), the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao) and the Three August Ones (Sanhuang ) sects.

In 589 AD, the Sui Dynasty (581—618) unified China. Different schools of Taoism then began a process of integration. The Maoshan School, which had evolved from the High Purity sect, became the dominant school in the south of the country and began to spread to the north. As both Buddhism and Taoism were practiced during the Sui Dynasty, Taoism developed rapidly, which paved the way for this religion to reach its zenith during the Tang Dynasty (618—907 AD).

Li Yuan, founder of the Tang Dynasty, made much use of public belief in Taoism in the struggle to overthrow the Sui Dynasty. When he assumed the throne, he announced that Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism was his ancestor (Lao Tzu’s family name being Li and his given name Er). Except for Wu Zetian (the only Empress in Chinese history), all the Tang Emperors venerated Taoism.

The most influential development of Taoism during the Five Dynasty period (907—960AD) on later Taoism was the rise of the so-called inner alchemy created by Zhongli Quan and LÜ Dongbin.

More schools of Taoism came into being during the period of the Song, Jin and Yuan dynasties (960—1368 AD). Taoism entered a new phase of development.

During the Northern Song Dynasty (960—1127 AD), the Maoshan school was still in a dominant position, and its lineage was very clear. The main new schools that appeared in this period were the Heavenly Heart (Tianxin) and Divine Heaven (Shenxiao) sects.

During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279AD), Taoism was dominated by the sects collectively known as the Talisman of the Three Mountains (Mount Longhu, Maoshan and Gezao). Furthermore, new sects, such as Shenxiao, Donghua and Qingwei were also active during this period.

Apart from a variety of old and new Talisman sects, there were also the Pure Brightness sect and the Southern Line Golden Elixir sect during the Southern Song Dynasty.

The Supreme Oneness (Taiyi), Great Tao (DaTao) and Complete Perfection (Quanzhen) doctrines ultimately became the Main forms of Taoism during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD).

The Supreme Oneness doctrine lasted for about 200 years and eventually, by the end of the Yuan Dynasty, it had been incorporated into the Orthodox Oneness (Zhengyi) tradition. The Great Tao doctrine declined toward the end of the Yuan and was also incorporated into the Orthodox Oneness tradition. In the Yuan Dynasty, the Complete Perfection and Orthodox Oneness traditions became the two major Taoist schools.

After the founding of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, adopted a policy to both make use of and control religion in order to safeguard his rule as the country’s sole dominant power. As a result, Taoism began to decline.

Comparatively speaking, the Ming rulers favored the Orthodox Oneness tradition more than the Complete Perfection tradition. The former enjoyed a higher political status than the later. Zhu Yuanzhang believed that the sole purpose of the meditation practiced by the Complete Perfection sect was the meditation itself whereas the Orthodox Oneness tradition upheld human relationship and stressed social customs, which had played an important role in social stability. For this reason, he supported the Orthodox Oneness tradition.

The rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) believed in Tibetan Buddhism. They had little knowledge of Taoism and therefore did not support nor even restrict the development of Taoism. The early Qing emperors followed Ming rulers and adopted a policy of protecting Taoism because of the need to win over the Han Chinese. But from Qianlong’s reign onwards, Qing rulers began to impose strict control over Taoism, leading to its decreased political influence and stagnant organizational development.

During the century between the first Opium War (1840-1842) and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China underwent a period of political chaos and the Chinese people suffered greatly from war and lived in great poverty. Taoist structures in renowned mountains fell into disrepair and many Taoists left their temples. As a result, Taoism became more closely tied to ordinary people’s daily lives.

The Tao Is Fundamental To The Cosmos

The Taoist religion is so named because Tao or “the Way” is regarded as the religion’s central tenet. Taoism maintains that Tao is the essence of the universe, as well as the law of the evolution and change of everything and anything. Tao contains everything and is omnipresent. The Book of Purity and Tranquility says: “The Great Tao has no form; it brings forth and raises heaven and earth. The Great Tao has no feelings; it regulates the course of the sun and the moon. The Great Tao has no name; it raises and nourishes the myriad beings.” On the Mysterious Matrix (Xuangang Lun 玄纲论) says: “Tao is rooted in a void, is the cause of the universe, the essence of divinity, and the origin of heaven and earth…It is on the basis of Tao that all beings survive and the Five Elements are formed.”

Life And Tao Combine Into One Integrated Cultivation Of Character And Life

Taoism stresses the value of life and teaches people to treasure and enjoy life. It believes that, by practicing the “integrated cultivation of character and life,” one can attain longevity and immortality. Xiang’er’s Commentary on “The Book of Lao Tzu” says, “Life is another form of Tao.” Here, “life” (sheng 生) means growth, existence and survival, which are all manifestation of Tao. Tao gives birth to all beings. Tao goes together with life. Life and Tao protect each other. This is the basic belief of Taoism. As long as one is able to cultivate Tao and preserve his health, to settle his essence and consolidate his body, he will have longevity, attain Tao and become a deity.

The basic principle for cultivation is the integrated cultivation character and life.

The cultivation of character refers to the cultivation of one’s nature and morality.

The cultivation of life refers to the cultivation of one’s bodily life.

The standard for the cultivation of character is learning and cultivating the morality prescribed by Taoist tradition, remaining tranquil and complying with nature, being supple and weak and never fighting for any personal gain, expelling any selfish desire, slighting fame and gain, and not being troubled by secular material needs, so as to be engrossed in cultivation. At the same time, one must do good deeds, help others and accumulate one’s merits. The cultivation of one’s bodily life means primarily the preservation of one’s essential matter, vital breath and spirit, keeping fit and living a long life by practicing Taoyin (bodybuilding exercises), the visualization of keeping in oneness, and discoursing on sitting in oblivion (seated meditation), embryonic breathing and outer and inner alchemy. Taoism teaches that one’s bodily life may be extended through cultivation, that one’s spiritual life may be distilled and one may eventually reach the stage of being immortal.

The Tao In Me Is “Te”

“Te” (or De 德, “virtue”) and “Tao” (or Tao 道,”the Way”) have formed the core of the Taoist canons. “Tao” is the internal law of things while “Te,” the “power of Tao,” is the concrete expression of Tao in things.

Chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching says: “Tao begets all beings, and Te fosters them. Therefore, all beings venerate Tao and honor Te.” This defines the relationship between “Tao” and “Te” as that between “begetting all beings” and “fostering them.” Therefore, it is generally believed that “Te” means the merits, actions and demonstrations of Tao.

From the perspective of human life, Tao refers to man’s virtue and good deeds. Therefore, Taoist scriptures say, “Tao in me is Te.” Here the “Te” is the manifestation of Tao. A person may feel at ease if he does good deeds and accumulates virtue. When he feels at ease, he has attained Tao. Taoism regards the principle of “being benevolent and benefiting others, accumulating beneficence and virtue” as a precondition for Taoist’s self-cultivation. Taoist scriptures say, “The foundation of longevity is based solely on benevolence.” Only a man who has a noble spirit and done many good deeds can cultivate himself enough to become a deity.

The Spirit Of Upholding Virtue

Taoism lays great stress on a person’s moral development and regards virtue as an important benchmark for measuring a person. It teaches that only those who have attained virtue may be able to cultivate themselves into becoming immortal. The inner Book of Master Baopu says, “Anyone who longs to become immortal should have attained the virtues of loyalty, filial piety, kindliness, spontaneity, benevolence and trustworthiness. Anyone who has not cultivated his virtue but only practiced necromancy will not achieve immortality.” Holding virtue in high esteem and emphasizing the teaching of ethics are important features of Taoism. The Book of Supreme Peace says, “A deity is one who never does evil. If each treasures his life, this is evidence of benevolence.”

Xiang’er’s Commentary on “The Book of Lao Tzu” says that any who wishes to become immortal “must cultivate himself in a myriad of ways and do a myriad of good deeds.” In short, “Benevolence is the only basis for attaining immortality.”

The Spirit Of Treasuring Life

Generally speaking, religions often draw people’s attention to the netherworld and have designed various plans for souls to be rescued or to ascend to heaven after death. They pay little attention to the quality of practical life or to how life can be extended. But Taoism is quite different.

It emphasizes reality, human life and the physical body and it actively explores how to lengthen human life. “The Book of Changes” says, “The greatest virtue in heaven and on earth is life.” and “Life is another form of Tao.” Taoism teaches that the reason life is so important is that a person can have only one life. “Everyone has one life, which will never be reborn,” says the Book of Supreme Peace. So Taoists oppose regarding life as the victim of secular desire, oppose trading life for fame and gain, and oppose blindly subjecting life to man-made political logic.

The Spirit Of Tolerance

In traditional Chinese culture, Taoism has been open and tolerant academically. This can be proved by the thoughts of Ge Hong, a famous Taoist theorist during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. Ge was an avid reader while still a boy and read all sorts of books from the classics of various early schools of thought to short essays ad articles. While advocating Taoism, he also held Confucianism in high esteem. He also said that the thought of the classics must never be ignored.

Taoism has not only absorbed nourishment from indigenous culture but also adopted an open and modest attitude toward Buddhism from ancient India. It has learned from foreign culture and integrated the best of that culture into Taoism.

The Spirit Of Self Reliance

Taoism has a resounding slogan: “My life is in my own hands, not heaven’s.” The length of one’s life is just determined by heaven but is in one’s own hands. Taoism teaches the firm belief that man is able to overcome natural hazards and enable his life to grow from weak to strong and from death to life and ultimately to become immortal through active cultivation. It opposes the attitude of non-action or apathy toward death. It admits that “there is life, so there must be death,” but regards this as one result of the course of natural evolution.

However, such a course of evolution can be reversed and death can be avoided through one’s initiative. A famous Taoist tenet says, “If you go along with it, you will remain a man. If you go against it, you will become a deity.” For centuries, generations of Taoists have striven to experiment again and again and to practice outer alchemy and inner alchemy in the quest to achieve the goal of immortality.

The spirit Of Helping People And Society

Though Taoism pursues the cultivation of individuals to become immortal, it never pits the “human way” (renTao 人道) against the “way of the immortals” (xianTao 仙道). Instead, it adheres to the principle of “internal and external integrated cultivation”; internal cultivation to keep fit and attain longevity, and external cultivation to help people and society.

The Eastern Jin Taoist priest Ge Hong said, “To a Taoist priest, the supreme merit is rescuing people from disaster and preventing them from dying in vain…Taking divine elixirs is useless without doing sufficient good deeds”. Lu Xiujing said in his General Taoist Rituals (Taomen Kelue 道门科略), “if a person has helped people beneath heaven, helped those in distress and aided those in peril, he will be able to attain three lives.”

Spontaneity And Non Interference

The Tao Te Ching says, “Man follows the way of earth. Earth follows the way of heaven. Heaven follows the way of Tao, and Tao follows the way of spontaneity.” The “spontaneity” or “naturalness” refers to the status of things being spontaneous with no interference from outside elements. This spontaneity is the most important feature of Taoism.

Whether in nature or human society, everything has to follow Tao or follow its own nature. It should never be changed by outside forces. How is this spontaneity to be realized instead of being opposed? The method put forward by Taoism is “non-interference” or “non-action”.

“Non-interference” does not mean taking a passive approach or doing nothing at all. Rather, it means following spontaneity without mixing in any of one’s own subjective thinking or selfishness. One must follow the intrinsic nature and law of development of all beings, taking appropriate action in response to objective conditions in order to act in the manner of “non-action.”

Remaining Tranquil And Restraining Desire
Tranquility is the nature of Taoism. Xiang’er Commentary on “The Book of Lao Tzu” says, “Tao has very often no desires and enjoys tranquility. Therefore, it may regulate heaven and earth.”

So a devotee of Taoism must first of all learn to be tranquil and know tranquility and
regards tranquility as a standard for his actions. Only then will he be able to attain Tao. The Book of Purity and Tranquility says, “Always be tranquil, and heaven and earth will return to the primordial.” But what kind of cultivation may enable a person to attain such tranquility? The core principles is to reduce selfishness and have few desires. Fame, wealth and sensuality continually arouse one’s desire. If one is unable to treat such desire lightly, how can he keep a calm mind? Hence Taoist scriptures say, “Having desires will harm one’s life. Having no desires enables one to achieve Tao.”

The Soft And Weak Do Not Compete With Others

The Tao Te Ching says that “Weakness is the function of Tao.” Lao Tzu said, “Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water, but no force can compare with it in attacking the hard and strong…the soft can overcome the hard and the weak can overcome the strong… When alive, man is soft and tender. After death, he is hard and stiff. All things like grass and trees are soft and tender when alive, whereas they become withered and dried when dead…” So he concluded that “the hard and stiff are companions of death, whereas the soft and tender are companions of life.” Being soft and weak does not mean being cowardly but being resilient.

Assertiveness and arrogance should be avoided. In this way, one may better protect oneself.

The Taoist Five Precepts

(Chinese: 五戒; Pinyin: Wu Jie; Cantonese: Ng Gye), constitute the basic code of ethics undertaken mainly by Taoist lay-cultivators. For Taoist monks and nuns, there are more advanced and stricter precepts. These precepts are similar to the Buddhist Five Precepts, but with minor differences.

According to The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts, the five basic precepts are:

  1. The first precept: No Murdering;
  2. The second precept: No Stealing;
  3. The third precept: No Sexual Misconduct;
  4. The fourth precept: No False Speech;
  5. The fifth precept: No Taking of Intoxicants.

The Taoist Triple Gem

The Three Jewels are basic virtues in Taoism. The Three Jewels are compassion, moderation and humility. They are also translated as kindness, simplicity and modesty.

The first of the Three Jewels is compassion (love or kindness), which the Tao Te Ching parallels with familial and brotherly love. It is compared to loving others and the world as a person loves their own existence.

The second is moderation (economy or restraint) which the Tao Te Ching praises. Moderation is connected with the Taoist metaphor pu (simplicity). It represents perfect efficiency and simplicity of desire.

The third treasure is humility, meaning as in the phrase “bugan wei tianxia xian” (not dare to be first in the world). It is connected to a fear of death, out of a love for life.

What are ‘inner alchemy’(内丹)and ‘qi’ (气)in Taoism?

Taoists compare the inner alchemy as the human body to an oven.

Essential matter or jing(精) can be transformed into vital breath by refining it in the “oven”. Vital breath of ‘qi’ can be transformed into a form of spirit called the sacred embryo (shengtai 圣胎) by refining it. By refining that spirit, one can return to emptiness and finally revert to the infinite, leaving one’s body and becoming immortal. This spirit was also called the golden elixir. Complete Perfection Taoists (全真派道士) and all later alchemists working to produce the golden elixir esteemed Zhongli Quan and Lǚ Dongbin as the patriarchs of this school.


“Qigong” (literally “breath exercise”), an invaluable component of traditional Chinese medicine, has its origin in ancient times. Its primary stimulus was the search for longevity with the ultimate aim of immortality, which has much entranced the Chinese mind from ancient times. The records shows the exercises to help the qi (the human body’s vital energy) circulating freely and to nourish the internal organs dated to the Shang Dynasty (16th -11th century AD). The actual practice of qigong began in the fourth century AD. Since then the search by physician and patient for greater health, techniques of religious cultivation and the martial artist’s quest for better training methods all contributed greatly to its development and enrichment over the following centuries.

The Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Medical and Martial schools of practice developed. Qigong has been passed down from generation to generation.


Taijiquan is divided into five major school—the Yang, Chen, Wu, Woo,
and Sun.

These schools further include a variety of forms. For instance, the Chen school includes an Old routine, a New routine, and the Zhaobao routine. The Yang school includes the Greater routine and the Lesser routine. Suitable for most people, Taijiquan exercises are helpful in curing illness and strengthening the constitution. Over the past three centuries, the popularity of Taijiquan has increased and spread far beyond China’s borders to Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe and America.

Because the level of input is entirely under the control of each individual, Taijiquan can be
enjoyed by all ages. In its purest form Taijiquan is a beautiful combination of eloquence and perfect, fluid body movement, yet it can be quite physical. This is perhaps why more and more people take to Taijiquan, with some devoting to the research of its theory.

Taijiquan is indeed a good exercise which, performed regularly, helps one keep fit, prevents and cures diseases, slows down the pace of growing old and prolongs life. The study found that practicing Taijiquan is a great help to the elderly. This is an indication of its immense value to men’s health, as has been testified by practice and research.

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